North Sinai residents’ daily suffering: Curfew, displacement, lack of access to services

Amira El-Fekki
14 Min Read
Women walk under a placard bearing the portrait of Egypt's army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in a street in the northern port city of Alexandria, on January 31, 2014. Egypt has been rocked by deadly bombings and attacks on security forces, mostly in the restive Sinai Peninsula where Islamist militants are active but also in other regions, including Cairo. Arabic writting on placard reads :"The President is comanded by the people."  (AFP PHOTO/STR)
Women walk under a placard bearing the portrait of Egypt’s army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in a street

At least 13 houses were demolished in Rafah Monday as per the second phase of the ongoing border evacuation in North Sinai, according to state media MENA which quoted security officials.

A total of 1,044 houses were removed out of 1,220 counted houses over a distance of 500 metres. The second phase began in January, and 313 houses were removed then.

The first phase was completed last November, displacing nearly 1,000 families. According Sinai Governor General El-Sayed Abdel Fattah Harhour, 837 houses were demolished in the first phase, also covering 500 metres alongside the border.

Last October, residents living within 500 metres of the Egypt-Gaza border were told to leave their homes for the armed forces to establish what it describes as a “secure zone” in order to eliminate the use of smuggling tunnels between the Egypt-Gaza borders.

President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi had promised compensations that would cost the government up to EGP 1bn. By the beginning of January, the government had distributed EGP 242m to the families moved in the first phase, out of a total of EGP 500m in compensations for that phase.

According to state media, compensations of EGP 1,200 should go for each square metre of a concrete building, and EGP 700 per square metre for other types of buildings. Additionally, there is a EGP 100 compensation per square metre of land a house is built on and a total of EGP 1,500 per family for other places of residency.

There will also be an allowance of EGP 1,000 per month for those who have businesses that were harmed by the evacuation. In addition, compensation will be given for those who are entitled to pensions, even NGOs who have been out of business in Rafah for some time.

The buffer zone is one of several measures undertaken by the government to counter the insurgency in North Sinai. The decision arrived in the wake of the 24 October attacks on security personnel, which left at least 30 dead. “State of Sinai’, formerly known as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, claimed the attacks.

The buffer zone was initially set to measure 1km in width. However, the government later decided to expand the buffer zone to cover an area extending 5km from the border, after a tunnel that measured 1,700 metres and reached beyond the first and the second phases was discovered in December 2014.

The ‘displacement’ issue

Human rights advocates along with some citizens from North Sinai claimed ‘forced leave’ and the displacement of hundreds of families. In an earlier interview with Daily News Egypt, Hala Shukrallah, president of Al-Dostour Party, said that reports from there said that temporary residential camps lacked proper equipment and did not provide adequate living conditions.

In November, Amnesty International (AI) condemned the evictions stating that authorities have proceeded “completely ignoring key safeguards required under international law including consultation with residents, adequate prior notice, sufficient compensation for losses and granting alternative housing to those who cannot provide for themselves, rendering the evictions unlawful”.


‘War on terrorism’ and impacts on residents

News about North Sinai is usually voiced by the state officials who mostly claim victories in military operations against militant groups. Almost on daily basis, the armed forces’ media officer posts the results of security raids on his official Facebook account.

In the period from 1 March to 21 March, the Egyptian army claimed the killing of nearly 160 “terrorist elements” in security operations varying between air raids and fire exchange during the security chase. The operations concern the cities of Al-Arish, Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah.

Moreover, a total of 302 arrests took place, among them were 46 wanted offenders, yet another 256 were arrested for suspicion of terrorism ties. The destiny of arrested suspects remains unknown.

Other operations include the confiscation or destruction of “unlicensed” vehicles, especially motorcycles, which the army states are being used in attacks on security forces. Nearly 274 vehicles and motorcycles have been destroyed. Finally, security searches include the detection and targeting of “terrorist” houses, camps and warehouses believed to contain weapons and ammunition, of which at least 59 were raided.

In comparison, at least six security officers were killed and over 50 were injured in different terrorist attacks. Eighteen bombs were also found and detonated in the month of March.

“For more than a year, the war on terrorism that has brought severe human losses of civilians killed by mistake and a degradation in the living conditions magnified by the border evacuation process,” Al-Dostour Party said.

According to Moussa Salem, member of the National Movement Party based in Sheikh Zuweid, the army commits “involuntarily” violations. “During military raids, it happens occasionally that some children are playing in the area,” he said.

Nonetheless, Salem denounced the arbitrary arrests of residents, saying he personally knows several young people who have nothing to do with terrorism that have been taken and “disappeared”.

Salem said that the arrested people are detained in the Galaa Military Prison in the governorate of Ismailia. “They are not allowed visits, so their families usually have no information on their whereabouts. It creates frustration,” Salem said.

A picture taken from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on the border with Egypt, on July 8, 2013, shows Egyptian soldiers keeping watch on top of a tank on the Egyptian side of the border. Egyptian authorities closed on July 5, the Rafah crossing to Gaza following attacks in the Sinai peninsula in the wake of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi's dismissal.  (AFP PHOTO/SAID KHATIB)
A picture taken from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on the border with Egypt, on July 8, 2013, shows Egyptian soldiers keeping watch on top of a tank on the Egyptian side of the border. 

Health services and emergencies

On 23 March, the North Sinai governorate issued a decision not to allow any ambulances to move without a security cover, following the stealing of an ambulance the previous day by armed militants in Sheikh Zuweid, state media MENA reported.

Head of the North Sinai Ambulance Authority Mahmoud Abdul Azim, however, did not confirm the news, telling Daily News Egypt Tuesday that normally coordination with security forces occurs “when needed”.

“I am not sure if this is going to be effective since security forces are constantly attacked themselves,” Al-Arish-based journalist Ahmed Abu Deraa said over the phone.

Abu Deraa added that transfers of residents to hospitals during curfew hours are problematic already. “For instance, ambulances only move across Al-Arish but if there are patients from Rafah, they would have to wait until morning,” he said.

Salem’s statements confirmed that it is very difficult to move from Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid during curfew hours, with the exception of Be’r Al-Abd city which is not under curfew restrictions. The city is located between Al-Arish and Sheikh Zuweid.

Voices from Sinai also included Sheikh Zuweid-based journalist Mostafa Singer who wrote on his Facebook page on 16 March: “The suffering of residents has no end, even in health needs, as prices of medical examinations and medications continue to increase.”

Curfew hours

A state of emergency was declared by the president for three months in North Sinai on 25 October following the deadly attack on Karam Al-Qawadees. On 25 January, curfew hours were extended for another three months, although reduced by a couple of hours. Now curfew hours start at 7pm until 6am.

Local residents’ had voiced their complaints of the negative impacts of curfew hours on their movements and businesses ahead of the parliamentary elections when they were still expected in March.

A group of political and civil forces had threatened to begin an open strike and abstain from any activity, in addition to threatening the boycott of the elections in objection to extended curfew hours.

“Residents are treated badly, they can barely leave town or use the roads due to safety problems, demeaning arrests and searching for suspicion of terrorism,” Secretary-General of Al-Karamah Party in and leading community member in Al-Arish Khaled Arafat had previously said.

The Regional Centre for Strategic Studies in Cairo (RCSS) had issued a paper on 15 March in which it stated that the extended period came to the disappointment of residents, caught up in the state’s dilemma of priorities between security and economy.

“Nonetheless, on 29 January, another attack occurred and came as the army’s hugest loss in decades, raising even more questions on the effectiveness of curfew hours as a security solution,” RCSS stated.

The paper acknowledged that the future of curfew hours in North Sinai include the possibility of maintaining the emergency state, with even more restrictions on resident. However, RCSS proposed that curfew hours be gradually reduced based on the need to integrate the governorate in Egypt’s economic system.

Sinai ‘out of coverage’

Most of the time communication networks are down in North Sinai. They include landline phones, reception of mobile phones and internet access, which are more likely to be cut during mornings.

In an interrupted phone call with Daily News Egypt Tuesday, Salem said that most of the time there is only network coverage during nights.

Despite security sources denying of cutting of communication to the press, the disconnection of communication lines usually occur after major militant or military operations.

In addition to difficult communication means between local residents and other parts of Egypt, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) had stated in its end-year report for 2014 that “the government has effectively stifled independent reporting from the region”.

EIPR had condemned the sentencing of North-Sinai based journalist Mohamed Sabry to prison by North Sinai Misdemeanour Military Court after being convicted of illegally taking pictures of military zones.

Electricity and Gas

On 15 March, Singer reported on Facebook that there has been no electricity in Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah for three days in a row, resulting in the halt of related services such as water pumping to households. “The continuous power cuts are a great way to rediscover the life of the early human being,” Singer wrote in a sarcastic comment.

Moreover, the gas pipeline of Al-Arish city has been exploded at least 27 times, affecting gas provision services. The last attack which took place in December 2014 resulted in the cutting of gas provision that affected 13,000 houses, according to statements by local governor El-Sayed Abdel Fattah Harhour to state media two days after the incident.

However, Salem said that for the exception of Al-Arish city, others areas in North Sinai are not much affected by the breaking of the main pipeline because their provisions comes from other sources.

Meanwhile, a delegation of the state-affiliated National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) had visited the region last January. Al-Ahram obtained a copy of their draft report on the situation regarding the fallout suffered by locals as a result from the security situation.

“Sinai residents have continued to voice disillusionment amid gross negligence by authorities and a worsening security and economic situation in the border region,” Al-Ahram quoted a rights reporter on 12 March.

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Journalist in DNE's politics section, focusing on human rights, laws and legislations, press freedom, among other local political issues.